1943. At the height of World War II, the Allies plan to invade Nazi-occupied Sicily. In London, British intelligence hatch a daring plan: to dump a corpse bearing false documents behind enemy lines. Can they deceive Hitler himself?
Operation Mincemeat is a gift to storytellers. It’s a minor but significant chapter of World War II that would seem far-fetched if it wasn’t, in fact, actual history: yes, the British government did once take the corpse of a homeless man, dress him in an officer’s uniform, fill his pockets with fake documents (including a love letter from a fictitious sweetheart, complete with backstory) and hope to pull the wool over the Nazi’s eyes. It’s a tantalising premise that demonstrates the lengths the Allies were willing to go: high stakes, mixed with high farce.
John Madden’s film nicely balances the ongoing grievance and trauma of a brutal war with rich period details and even a modest sense of fun. When it really pops, the whole thing unfurls almost like a caper by way of Ealing Studios, as the team — led by three enjoyably dry turns from Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen and Kelly Macdonald — meticulously plan out every eventuality, ad absurdum. (A scene where Firth attempts to photograph a corpse sitting upright is morbidly funny.)
This is a British film to its tea-soaked core.
That audacious tone is helped by the fun footnote that the operation was likely the brainchild of a young Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), whose taste for espionage would later fuel his James Bond novels, and understandably, the film can’t resist a few sly nods-and-winks to 007’s future.
But the crackling pace is somewhat interrupted by a soapy love triangle between the three leads, which feels slightly shoehorned in, with chemistry that never fully materialises. Perhaps it’s because every upper lip here is resolutely stiff: this is a British film to its tea-soaked core, and while that may lose it a bit of cinematic ambition (Madden also directed both Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, which hints at the target audience here), it is an undeniably rousing watch, even in its highest moments of drama: destined to become a Bank Holiday staple.
Though occasionally undone by its Sunday-teatime tendencies, this is a spirited and gently entertaining slice of wartime espionage, with sharp, wry performances from the ensemble cast.